Inside the Fox Sports team able to create an NRL crowd of 50,000

Forget fake news, this is about fake noise. As the world watched, the NRL restarted with a roaring crowd but empty stands. So how did they do it? Here’s the inside story of the bargain buy of the year.

Steve Crawley has created rugby league’s most unlikely hit for just $3000.

Apparently, great value for creating the noise of a fake NRL crowd.

“Initially we got quoted almost $2 million,” the Fox Sports head of television revealed on Friday.

“It was a global company, a group that specialises in movies and entertainment. They offered to provide us with virtual crowd noise for the rest of this season for a couple of million.

“But instead, we’ve decided to rely on our own talent … and on Thursday evening, created a world first.”

Didn’t they what?

Can you hear that? Footy is back.... with fake noise! Picture: Richard Dobson
Can you hear that? Footy is back…. with fake noise!
Can you hear that? Footy is back…. with fake noise!

On the same night rugby league exploded back onto the Australian sports landscape, Fox Sports unveiled a virtual audio crowd that earned record ratings, international acclaim and even – gasp – widespread social media praise.

Officially, the Thursday Night Football clash between Parramatta and Brisbane was the highest rating regular season game in Fox Sports simulcast history, with an average audience of 401,000.

All up, the match drew 1.3 million viewers, smashing all sorts of NRL records.

Yet undoubtedly, the biggest broadcast chatter centred around how an empty Suncorp Stadium was brought so successfully to life on TV by fake crowd noise.

So popular was the Fox production, US broadcasters have already expressed interest in replicating the system — which requires not only its own audio booth, but four employees — when major codes like the NFL and NBA eventually return.

While Channel 9 also used canned crowd noise in its broadcast, the Fox Sports team have likened their own unique system to “playing an instrument”, explaining far more goes into the process than simply pressing a button marked ‘applause’.

Over the past eight weeks, Fox Sports staffers have compiled a library of 57 sounds for both home and away teams at every NRL venue set to be used during the lockout.

As a result, when rugby league returned on Thursday night, Crawley’s four-man crew had at their fingertips specific Suncorp Stadium audio for when the Broncos scored, dropped the ball, even had a winger bundled into touch.

The audio was altered depending on which side had the ball, and was tweaked to reflect the action on the field.

Every sound, too, had a corresponding alternative for the away team.

Yet canned laughter from Leave it to Beaver this ain’t.

Instead, and working in real time, the Fox Sports crew also decipher the flow of the contest, predict what is coming, and then provide audio to match.

As a result, Fox Sports Head of Audio Tony Koveos not only sits at a panel adjusting crowd noise levels, but also works to replicate anticipation as it would build within a real crowd of 50,000.

An experience he compares to “playing the pianolo in those old silent films”.

“Because you’re not only playing along with the game,” he said.

“But underscoring the emotional changes as they happen.

“You’re watching the game and thinking ‘OK it’s getting exciting here’ so you start building the crowd up. Same as if the home side drops the ball, you have to make the crowd noises sound more negative.”

Fox Sports’ Head of Audio Tony Koveos was in charge of creating and conducting the crowd noise on Thursday night’s game. Picture: Richard Dobson
Fox Sports’ Head of Audio Tony Koveos was in charge of creating and conducting the crowd noise on Thursday night’s game.
Fox Sports’ Head of Audio Tony Koveos was in charge of creating and conducting the crowd noise on Thursday night’s game.

Working out of their own booth, the Fox Sports team also includes software developer Alex Wong and producers Jamie Lockyer and Brad McNamara, who together are responsible for helping direct the “feel” of the audio.

So impressed is Fox Sports with its new system, it will stay in place even when crowds return.

“What happened in Australia on Thursday night, it’s a world first,” Crawley said. “And moving forward, it will happen everywhere.

“Already, the reaction we’ve received from America has been incredible.

“Because this isn’t just a roar, a clap or some background murmur, this is our guys playing an instrument.”

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